Ruling

18949-17 Samrai v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      29th March 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 18949-17 Samrai v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. Davinder Samrai complained on behalf of Freight Books, and in his own right, to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “City’s book prize ending spoilt”, published on 11 October 2017.

2. The article reported that a literary prize had been cancelled “because of financial problems at the company that had agreed to publish the winning title”. It said that the prize offered first-time authors the opportunity to win £5,000 and a publishing deal, but reported that “difficulties at Freight Books caused the organisers to abandon this year’s prize”. The article reported a statement from the organisers of the Prize: “without being in a position to guarantee publication of the winning title, a very key component of the prize, we feel unable to proceed this year”.

3. The article was published online in substantively the same form, headlined “Dundee’s book prize ending spoilt”.

4. The complainant said that there was no legal agreement in place between his publishing company, Freight Books, and the organisers of the Literary Prize for the publication of the 2017 winning title. In those circumstances, the complainant said that Freight Books was not responsible for the prize being cancelled: its organisers had taken the decision to secure an alternative publishing partner in July 2017, as was their right.

5. In support of this, the complainant provided an email which he had received in July 2017 from the organisers of the Prize:

“I’ve decided it would be best for everyone that we secure a new publishing partner; Davinder, you might recall I touched upon this with you a few months ago when I asked if you would be in a position to work with us in 2017, and I completely understand that it’s really difficult for Freight to see things in the longer term while you’re in firefighting mode and on the back foot. I’m sure you can understand though that the prize demands a longer term planning process, and so I’ve found us a new publishing solution. We won’t be sharing the news publicly until next week”.

6. The complainant said that the organisers of the prize had no knowledge of any “financial problems” at Freight Books. In response to a request by IPSO to set out the reasons why he believed that the organisers had taken the decision to seek a new publishing partner, the complainant said that he believed this had been as a consequence of a change in company personnel at Freight Books. While the complainant accepted that the company had been experiencing “financial difficulties” at this time, he said that he had not been responsible for these debts, and only he had been aware of them, after he had taken over the business.

7. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that publicity material for the 2017 Dundee International Book Prize had stated from the outset that, as in previous years, the winning author would be published by Freight Books. It noted when the prize was launched in February 2017, Freight Books had published a statement on its own website: “The organisers of the Dundee International Book Prize have once again invited unpublished authors to polish their manuscripts and stake their claim for £5,000 and a publishing deal with Freight Books”.

8. The newspaper said that no public announcement of any “new publishing partner” had ever been made, following the email which the complainant had received in July 2017. It said that there was no reason why anyone not privy to this correspondence should know of, or suspect, that a new publishing deal might exist.

9. The newspaper did not accept that only the complainant was in a position to know of the “financial problems” at Freight Books. It said that a well-known printing company were taking Freight Books to court for unpaid debts dating back to January 2017. The newspaper noted that it was public record that at least 40 authors had been unpaid by Freight. It also said that in September 2017, a journalist had spoken to the complainant who stated: “Right now, I have staff to pay. The only part of the business making money is design. I’m doing this for petrol money. I am not even taking money out of this business”. It said that putting together the unpaid authors, the unpaid printers and the complainant’s admission that he was not taking money out of the business, it was a reasonable inference that Freight Books had financial troubles.

10. The newspaper noted that during IPSO’s investigation, Freight Books went into liquidation.

11. The newspaper said that it had sought comment from the organisers of the Prize, prior to publication. It said that the journalist had contacted the same person who had written to the complainant in July 2017, but she had declined to speak about the decision to abandon the Prize. She had, instead, referred to the public statement which had been issued on the Literary festival’s website announcing the cancellation of the prize: this had then been reported in the article. It said that the journalist had also sought comment from a major partner in the literary festival, for clarification on the statement which had been issued on the festival’s website. The journalist had been told that “if Freight had continued operating normally and weren't mired in a complete mess, the book prize would have happened." The newspaper said that it had sought comment from the complainant twice, but on both occasions he had declined to comment.

12. While the newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code, it offered to put on record that there was no formal contract for Freight Books to publish the 2017 prize:

“We said that the Dundee International Literary Prize 2017 had been ‘cancelled because of financial problems at the company that had agreed to publish the winning title’.  We have been asked to make clear that there was no legal contract for the prize winner to be published by Freight Books, which has since gone into administration”.

Relevant Code provisions

13. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

14. The newspaper had been entitled to rely upon the statements made on the website of the literary prize and Freight Books itself, both of which had made clear that there was an expectation that Freight Books would publish the 2017 winning title. While there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to put the complainant’s position on record that there was no legal obligation for the prize winner to be published by Freight Books.

15. The article had made a further claim that the prize had been cancelled as a consequence of “financial problems” at Freight Books. The complainant had provided correspondence which he had received from the organisers of the prize, which recorded their decision to seek a new publishing partner. However, the complainant was not in a position to know the precise reasons why the organisers had come to that decision.

16. Further, while the Committee noted the complainant’s position that only he was in a position to be aware of the state of Freight Books finances, the complainant had accepted that the company had been experiencing financial difficulties in July 2017. The newspaper had relied on publicly available information about the company’s financial affairs, including a legal action which had been brought against Freight Books over unpaid work.

17. The newspaper had taken care to seek comment from the organisers of the literary festival and the complainant himself, on the reasons why the prize had been cancelled; both had declined to comment.

18. In July 2017, the organisers of the prize had indicated to the complainant that they intended to secure a new publishing partner. The complainant was not in a position to know the precise reasons why the organisers took the decision to end the publishing arrangement with his company. The Committee noted, however, the complainant’s acceptance that financial difficulties were present at Freight Books at that time. Prior to publication, the newspaper had sought comment from a major partner of the festival. The journalist had been told that if Freight Books had continued “operating normally” and had not been “mired in a complete mess”, the book prize would have gone ahead. In the absence of any comment from the organisers of the prize, this statement supported what was not in dispute, and was now a matter of public record: Freight Books had been experiencing financial difficulties in July 2017. It also suggested that these difficulties had influenced the decision to cancel the prize. It was not misleading, in those circumstances, for the newspaper to associate these difficulties, with the reason why the prize had not gone ahead. There was no breach of the Code.

Conclusion

19. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 11/10/2017
Date decision issued: 22/02/2018